The Orlando Magic were not stifling teams like they did earlier in the season. But their last two games were a welcome return to sound defensive principles.
This was not the hurried inspirational speech kind of talk they gave before Friday’s win over the Los Angeles Lakers, the speech that eventually spurred on a nine-block first quarter and set the tone for the team’s best defensive performance in weeks.
The two Orlando Magic big men, acquired this summer for their rim protection, spoke again about that same subject. How they could do more to allow their guards to pressure more and make life harder. They would have to win the battle at the rim and do so emphatically to get the team back on track.
Through one game, they did so. The question remains whether they can do it again (they did against the Memphis Grizzlies) and again.
“At this point, we’ve got to give the other guys confidence so they can pressure the ball and someone is going to cover their back,” Bismack Biyombo said before Monday’s game. “Last game we did it. We got to come and do it again tonight. That has been the main focus for us. We had that conversation on how we can continue to do push the guards to pressure the ball. The only way they can do that is if they trust someone behind them is going to block as many shots or change as many shots.”
The Magic on Friday held the Lakers to 90 points and an 87.8 offensive rating. This was the first time the team had held an opponent to less than 100 points since Dec. 4 against the Detroit Pistons.
The Magic have gotten inconsistent play from their defense, to say the least. But the last three weeks have proven especially bad. This was not what Orlando envisioned when it put this team together — adding Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo along with Frank Vogel to build a defensive identity.
The Magic were able to follow up their strong game Friday with another good defensive effort in Monday’s win. The Magic held the Grizzlies to just 71 points through three quarters and 43 points and a 92.3 offensive rating.
Orlando’s defense was particularly on point. And suddenly, the Magic seem to have found some of their defensive footing again.
“We’re just trusting each other,” Aaron Gordon said. “We’re doing the right things. We’re listening to the coaches and trying to buy in. It’s as simple as that. We’re buying in to the game plan. We’re holding each other accountable. It’s a major thing. There is no real secret to the defense.”
There is really nothing complex about this shift. The team has sharpened up the details to its game plan and recommitted to their principles. They have upped their aggression and precision. That has made the team far more effective defensively.
Vogel said the team followed its defensive gameplan the best it had this season in Friday’s game. Certainly, the early blocks created some energy and momentum for the team Friday.
Orlando did it again Monday, showing signs of life defensively and some continuity
Overall, the Magic have played good defense only in spurts. In December, Orlando has a 108.7 defensive rating, 21st in the league. For the season, the Magic have given up 105.2 defensive rating, 18th in the league.
This despite both Ibaka and Biyombo playing subjectively good defense overall.
Ibaka has had his ups and downs this year. He is averaging about the same number of blocks per game as he did last year and his block rate has increased slightly. His rebound rates have bounced back from its low of last year. And he still posts a decent defensive box plus-minus, although it is the lowest since his rookie year.
Biyombo has seen his rebound rate drop and his block rate is a career low. But he has been effective defensively still. He has a career-high defensive box plus-minus so far, and one of the best in the entire league.
More importantly for what Ibaka and Biyombo do, their field goal percentage allowed at the rim. Biyombo gives up 48.9 percent shooting at the rim, second best on the team, and Ibaka gives up 49.8 percent. There are still little signs of the defense coming into the shape everyone envisioned.
If the Magic are going to regain their identity, they can rely on these back stops to make life hard at the rim and at least change shots, something that is important to the team’s defensive principles.
The trick, as always is to do it again and again. This has been the part that is elusive for the Magic.
“You just continue to be consistent,” Biyombo said. “We can’t just do it one time and be happy. We’ve got to do it as many times as it’s needed. That is what is going to make the difference between the good teams and the great teams. We are on our way there.”
There is still plenty to clean up. Vogel joked after Friday’s game and then reiterated more seriously Monday that many of the blocks the Magic had in that first quarter were because of blow bys. That is certainly a byproduct of a more aggressive, physical defensive strategy from the guards.
But that mentality has helped the Magic regain their defensive identity. Orlando is seemingly using that luxury of those rim protectors behind them and sticking to the gameplan better than they have in some time.
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It is clear they are dictating terms. The guards are feeding players to the bigs in the spots they want. The defense is rotating well and setting the pace well.
On top of that, Elfrid Payton noted the team has improved its defensive rebounding and finishing defensive possessions. Limiting teams to one shot has helped settle the defense, especially with how the offense keeps rolling.
The Magic still have a lot of work to do defensively. Even in the last two games, they have made mistakes. And two games does not make a trend, nor an identity.
Orlando is still rebuilding itself and finding defensive consistency. The last two games have shown the Magic can get themselves back on track, at least enough. Consistency and momentum are built in the next game, however.
Orlando is still looking to build things the next time out.